I read Dave Eggers’ somewhat new book, The Circle recently. It’s a sort of technological-dystopia set in the near future, where a Google-like company is essentially taking over the world. While I found the book interesting and quite good, although somewhat absurd, what I found remarkable is how often the themes are coming up in news articles.
First as a bit of background on the plot, the protagonist gets a job at this hugely successful corporation called Circle. As the book progresses, the ambitions of the company get ever larger, to the point where they essentially decide that everything should be public. In an allusion to Orwell’s 1984, the company adopts two slogans: “SECRETS ARE LIES” and “PRIVACY IS THEFT”. The company installs cameras around the world (“SeeChange”s) so people can see live-feeds of everything that is going on everywhere. They encourage politicians to go “transparent”, which basically involves wearing a live-streaming camera on their person at all times so that citizens can see what they’re up to. The company is also involved in ambitious plans to solve health problems through the collection of huge amounts of data. The company essentially rolls together all the logins on the web into their TruYou identity, which becomes so predominant countries move to make having an account mandatory for voting.
The company essentially does a whole lot of creepy, but also mostly plausible stuff. While I was reading the book, I sometimes found myself nodding along at the technological ideas. The innovations were either already here, are imminently on the horizon, or are things that could easily happen. For instance, the idea of unifying online logins is actually something I could imagine happening. It is quite annoying having to remember so many different logins and passwords, and if a company were to find some kind of solution for that I’m sure they’d make it big.
Edward Docx in The Guardian said a similar thing about the ideas:
There is much to admire. The pages are full of clever, plausible, unnerving ideas that I suspect are being developed right now. “SeeChange” is one such: millions of cheap, lollipop-sized “everything-proof” high-resolution cameras with a two-year battery life that can be taped up anywhere so that the video streams can be accessed by all. “This is the ultimate transparency. No filter. See everything. Always.” [Emphasis added.]
I want to just pick out another couple of examples where the book is creepily prescient.
I wrote above how the Circle is attempting to solve health problems by collecting vast amounts of data about its employees. Google is essentially doing the same thing. In July Ars Technca reported that Google is planning a huge health study, applying so-called “big data” to healthcare, in an effort to get us to live longer:
“Google X has launched a new moonshot called “Baseline Study,” which is intended to help us better understand the human body. Google wants to collect genetic and molecular information that it will use to create a picture of a healthy human. The project will initially start with 175 people and will later expand to “thousands” more. Unlike most Google X projects, Google’s hasn’t come out and talked about this one; all the information we have comes from a Wall Street Journal report.
The plan is to collect a massive amount of information on healthy people and to use that data to proactively identify and address health problems. Most medicine today is reactive rather than focusing on the prevention of illness—something goes wrong and then you get treatment. Once Google has a good baseline of what a healthy human looks like, that data can be compared to data from other individuals to discover potential problems before symptoms become obvious.”
Then I saw recently an article at The Atlantic about a guy, Noah Dyer, who thinks the world would be a better place if we were to give away all semblance of privacy:
As he sees it, our insistence on a right to privacy empowers elites to keep secrets. “The smartest people in any society will gain whatever advantage they have over others—whatever the system is, they’re going to work it,” he says. He sees information as a source of asymmetric advantage, one used by corporate barons and other powerful people with access to it. If only everyone had access to the same information, he says, society would be fairer and more equal—we’d all be able to take advantage of the best possible information.
He thinks most of us would live more ethically too. He is extremely ethically consistent, adhering to his own value system far more than most people, he explained. Yet he hypothesized that being recorded would make him behave even better…
These quotes from Dyer could be taken straight out the book. One of the leaders of the Circle goes on the this massive diatribe about how secrets just lead people to act badly, and there aren’t really any circumstances in which people could be justified in keeping them. While this is evidently an extreme view, it’s interesting to see people espousing it in the public.
The Circle was a really interesting book. While it had some silly aspects, it made me think about the way the relationship between technology and society, and more specifically the extent to which we have given away our privacy to these huge corporations. It also got me thinking about how these tech companies, while trying to “make the world a better place” and also make bucket loads of cash, in the process can do some pretty dodgy things. They don’t necessarily set out to be invasive and all-encompassing, but sometimes that’s how it ends up.
How can we, as individuals, respond when these companies are accumulating too much power over our lives? I think there are two answers to this question. One, we can make conscious decisions as consumers to think about the ramifications of our choices of products. Do we want Google to know everything about us? Should we support instead a smaller, less monstrous competitor? Do I want to pay for a product, or do I want it to be free and my personal information traded away? Personally, I’ve taken steps to de-Google my life, and after reading the book, you might well too.
Secondly, and more broadly, I think governments have a role in regulating the market power of some of these huge companies. The problem is that such regulation is no small task – technology moves quickly, and by the time regulators gather the necessary information and make a case, sometimes the situation has already changed. Another problem is the sheer size of these international technology companies – it seems difficult for a country to regulate a company which is global in reach. The European Union’s bodies have been doing an okay job of this as far as I can see, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
What we can’t afford to do is to be apathetic about the challenges around privacy and market power that companies such as Google and Facebook are creating. These issues matter, and are worth thinking about and acting on.
Cover image copyright Penguin
Edited 17 September + 2 October